Quick Takes

Overdose deaths in Kentucky drop for first time since 2018

By: - April 20, 2023 2:22 pm

Overdose deaths were down in Kentucky last year, according to preliminary data for the first time since 2018. (Getty Images)

Kentucky recorded fewer overdose deaths in 2022 than in 2021, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday. 

Beshear cited preliminary numbers from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, which showed 2,127 overdose deaths in 2022, down from 2,257 in 2021. 

“That number is still far too high,” Beshear said. “One is too many.” But, he said, it’s still encouraging to have the number drop for the first time in years. 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention data shows fatal drug overdoses haven’t dropped in Kentucky since 2018. 

“I certainly hope that the medical marijuana program. or what’s allowed under my executive order, is resulting in fewer people having to take opioids,” Beshear said. “What we know is that opioids are so addictive, and so it would stand to reason that if we cut down the number of people who ever start taking them, then we would cut down at least a portion of the addiction that’s out there.” 

Opioids, according to the CDC, are a class of pain medication, which may include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and methadone. 

Recent years have also seen a rise in deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The powerful drug contributed to 73% of Kentucky’s overdoses in 2021. A new Kentucky law decriminalized fentanyl test strips, which can detect the presence of fentanyl in pills and other drugs within minutes. Experts have said such a test can save lives. 

In late March Beshear signed bipartisan legislation legalizing medical marijuana – with restrictions. That came after he signed an executive order in late 2022 that said, starting Jan. 1, people with illnesses like cancer, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder could get access to no more than eight ounces of medical cannabis purchased in the United States. 

He said Thursday he hopes steps to legalize marijuana will help people who otherwise might turn to opioids. 

“If we can take another step to decrease people’s uses of opioids,” Beshear said, “if they can treat pain instead with medical marijuana…I do believe that it will result in fewer opioid deaths.” 

Dana Quesinberry with the Kentucky Drug Overdose Data to Action said the “early signal” of death decline is a positive thing, but there is more work to do. 

“While this news is encouraging, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “And we really hope that this early signal will…strengthen our resolve to address substance use issues, including the diagnosis and treatment of substance use disorders and continue to support Kentuckians…in their recovery and our joint recovery as we move forward.” 


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, COVID-19 and more.